How to Create a Loose Painting That Looks and Feels Alive

Loose Painting

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Attempting a loose painting can feel like losing control over your work. You’ll be glad to know that painting loosely is how you let go of the illusion of control and create art you didn’t think possible.

A looser painting style pushes your creative boundaries while eliminating second-guessing. When you’re more concerned with emotion or style, you’ll care less about every detail being ‘perfect’ – the uncomfortable feeling of letting go of control is exactly when you start to improve.

From using a palette knife to using bold strokes, this guide will teach you how to paint fearlessly.

What You’ll Need to Create a Loose Painting

 

what you'll need to create a loose painting

Since this guide will teach you the painting process behind loose and playful work, don’t worry too much about solvents or mediums. Below are a few simple tools that will make loose painting styles not just faster, but easier:

  • Your paint of choice
  • A surface
  • Two or three brushes of different sizes
  • A palette knife
  • A pencil

While the type brush isn’t the most important detail, you can save a little time by using a high-quality brush that creates sharper edges or leaves less of a mess.

Step #1: Choose a Simple Subject Matter to Start With

 

choose a simple subject matter to start with

The simpler the subject matter, the better – you want to focus more on painting loosely than capturing all the tiny complexities of a subject. If you need a few easy places to start, the following ideas are easy to access and relatively low in detail:

  1. A jacket hung up on the wall
  2. A bowl of fruit
  3. An open field in the park
  4. A pair of shoes
  5. A vase of flowers
water lilies
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Water Lilies by Van Gogh is a brilliant example of how to paint loosely – this piece captures the nostalgic sensation of looking down on a river while passing by. Notice how there are few details here in favor of large shapes and smudged light.

A loose paint style is seriously freeing – you can let your mind wander and keep your hand loose, focusing on feeling over accuracy.

Step #2: Set Up Your Painting Station

 

set up your painting station

Once you’ve chosen a subject or a setting to paint loosely, it’s time to set up your station. Again, don’t worry too much about juggling several supplies or having a ‘perfect’ set-up – just make sure it’s comfortable to use.

Here are a few tips to ensure you’re focusing more on painting loosely instead of fumbling with your set-up:

  1. Make sure everything’s within arm’s length so you don’t interrupt your session
  2. Choose the base colors of your painting before starting so you don’t constantly pause to mix paint
  3. If you need to stay hydrated or snack, bring your food and drink with you (and keep a napkin to wipe your hands off)

Getting all the busywork out of the way frees up your attention to focus on loose, casual painting.

Below is a plein air paint session by Chuck Black. They use a portable easel with a little compartment to hold all the paints, brushes, papers, and more.

Don’t have a portable easel for plein air? Check out this video by Sarah Burns Studio where they create a quick painting set-up in their backpack.

Step #3: Create a Simple Sketch of Your Subject

 

create a simple sketch of your subject

Since the focus of this tutorial is on painting, stick to a very simple sketch for your loose painting. You can save the fine detail and tight painting for future pieces.

Your basic sketch should give you a main point to start with, but prevent you from getting distracted by complicated details. If anything, your sketch should look like a glorified outline where you can fill everything in like a coloring book. 

(This step also eliminates blank page syndrome since it takes little effort, so it’s a win-win all around.)

Patrick Okrasinski has a wonderful plein air painting where they block in an extremely simple sketch – again, basically, a fancy outline for them to fill in with heavy washes of color.

Step #4: Choose the Loose Painting Technique You Want to Try

 

choose the loose painting technique you want to try

While learning different paint processes is exciting, stick with one loose painting technique for now. Once you get comfortable with the creative process, you can branch out and try something new without overwhelming yourself.

Below are a few well-known loose painting processes, some of which you might have tried already.

Impasto

Impasto is practically the poster child for painting in a looser style. Artists frequently use a palette knife or a very thick brush to pull off this painting technique – fine detail is rare or non-existent.

impasto
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Claude Monet’s ongoing Water Lilies series often featured impasto. As you can see with the stunning life study above, each layer of thick paint leaves behind curling textures that rub your eyes in all the right ways.

Impressionism

Impressionism is both a movement and a paint technique. Historians characterized this art movement by its whimsical brushstrokes and focus on emotional sensation over photographic accuracy.

What Impressionists started, you can continue with your own unique spin.

impressionism

(Image Source)The Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro is a fantastic source of inspiration when you’re wondering how to interpret the world with a loose painting process. Nearly every brushstroke is visible and rough, hinting at detail instead of focusing on it.

With less attention on blending or tightening up fine details, you can focus instead on a true-to-life color palette or natural textures. In a fascinating twist, this somewhat abstract painted work feels as real as a photograph – you can almost smell the rain.

Alla Prima

Do you ever look at oil paintings and wonder how the artist created such buttery results with a loose style? They might have been using an alla prima technique – wet-on-wet for smudging and blurring colors together.

alla prima
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John Singer Sargent was an American classical painter who frequently used alla prima to create deliciously blurred, smudged studies from life. The way he used paint looks like a conversation with the canvas.

His painting Group With Parasols shows how you can paint loosely – with just a few brushstrokes hinting at an object – and still make a scene feel hypnotically lifelike. Notice the effective contrast between hard edges on the clothes with blurred edges for fluffy foliage.

Step #5: Block in Basic Colors and Shapes to Fill Out Your Subject

 

basic colors and shapes to fill out your subject

A loose painting doesn’t mean unstructured – in fact, you should block in the basic shapes, light, and shadow so you can keep your work grounded. Painting way too loosely right off the bat can leave you confused about where to place your next brushstroke.

Just make sure you’re not trying to make your painting as ‘tight and clean’ as possible – some experimental linework or blending is where you stretch your creative muscles. Since you’re learning a new technique, you’re going to make mistakes, and then use them as lessons to sharpen your skill.

This brief demo by Plein Air School with Roy Boswell has both useful tips and an example of how to block in basic shapes. Notice how they don’t focus on every single leaf on a tree, but focus on large shapes or adding more paint for extra texture.

Step #6: Gradually Become More Loose and Playful

 

Loose and Playful

Painting loosely means being comfortable with not always knowing where your piece is going. You want to paint spontaneously and emotionally rather than painting ‘correctly’ – letting go of control.

As you focus on less control, you’ll find your paint style evolving in many phases. For example, you may realize you enjoy hinting at fine details in flowers by using little dots like Pointillism. Instead of attempting to paint every single petal, you can sprinkle in different shapes to create the illusion of a fluffy rose.

Chelsea Lang has a fantastic video where they do a loose painting of a landscape. Their painting shows the many benefits of a loose and casual work, transforming a simple sunset into an image that feels almost dreamlike:

Step #7: Step Back and Critique Your Artwork With an Open Mind

Once you’ve completed your painting, it’s time to step back and do a little analysis. While you may be tempted to throw your work away or immediately move on to the next piece, this step is crucial for improving more quickly.

Think about it: how can you improve your art if you don’t actually sit with it for a while?

There are many questions you can ask about your work to improve it, such as about your composition or color choice. To become a good loose painter, I recommend asking the following questions:

  1. Do I have a good mix of hard edges and soft edges to provide visual contrast?
  2. Have I followed the key principles of the loose painting style I’m studying?
  3. What’s the dominant emotion or sensation of this piece?
  4. How do I feel when I paint?
  5. What am I thinking about when I paint?

Learning how to critique your paintings is a valuable skill you can whip out at any time. This practice ensures your creative process has active direction and you can see progress at any stage in your journey – even if it’s just a little!

7 Clever Tips for Creating Spontaneous and Freeform Paintings

 

tips for creating spontaneous and freeform paintings

Want a few more painting tips to speed up your progress? Below are a few I’ve tried that do wonders to cut into my hesitation and get me painting loosely.

Put Your Reference in One Room and Your Canvas in Another

“Wouldn’t this just make a painting take longer?”, you might be asking. As it stands, this tip is a great way of helping you capture the emotion or sensation as a scene – not trying to copy it exactly.

One of the many appeals of a loose painting style is how it stylizes a subject. You get hints of details or suggestions of subject matter, inviting the viewer to fill in the visual blanks.

Use Extra Large Brushes

 

use extra large brushes
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If you’re a tight painter, you already know the benefit of thin, tiny brushes for getting down details. Large brushes, however, force you to focus on broad, sweeping brushstrokes.

Not only do these tools force you to avoid too much detail or accuracy, but they can also fill in spaces very quickly – a must-have for finishing up work in a short timeframe.

Paint With Your Non Dominant Hand

Now, hear me out! While you may think this tip is counterproductive – you’re guaranteed to do sloppy work – it’s actually one of the best ways to learn how to paint loosely.

Since you don’t have the same motor control as your dominant painting hand, you also don’t have the same expectations. Painting loosely also means loosening up your mindset, after all. If you’re not chained down by heavy expectations to create something impressive, you can focus more on having fun and trying something new.

(That said, painting loosely does involve simpler and faster brushstrokes. You might just create something impressive, anyway!)

Blur Your Vision to Capture a Subject’s Striking Shapes

 

blur your vision to capture a subject's striking shapes
(Image Source)

Not sure how to create an interesting composition before you paint? A trick I love using is blurring my vision to reduce detail and capture the most striking shapes of a subject or setting.

I’m nearsighted, so this trick simply involves me looking over the rim of my glasses at a distance. If you’re not nearsighted, you narrow your eyes until your vision becomes dark and less defined.

What are the dominant shapes you see before you? Translate that into a simple sketch to form a solid backbone for your loose paintings. 

Take a Break and Enjoy Some Inspiration First

The stress of daily life and social media can leave your mind feeling cluttered – chores, taxes, work, you name it. A reliable way of getting in the right headspace for loose paintings is enjoying some inspiration.

Do you follow any artists on Instagram or YouTube? Flip through your favorite artists’ work for fifteen or twenty minutes to set your mind on a creative – not distracted – path. If you’re inspired by nature, you can instead take a fifteen or twenty-minute walk through the park to get the creative juices flowing.

There are psychological reasons why we tend to focus better after taking a break to enjoy something that requires less effort. Taking advantage of this will help you not just paint loosely, but come up with some creative ideas after feeding your brain.

Create a Few Mini-Paintings to Experiment With Your Technique First

This tip is incredibly useful not just for finding your own style, but keeping you from becoming discouraged as you paint. A few mini pieces can help you figure out the kinks in a new technique early so your longer piece looks a little more confident.

create a few mini-paintings to experiment with your technique first
(Image Source)

For example, let’s say you want to learn to paint loosely with a palette knife. You can do two or three mini pieces that only take five or ten minutes each to become comfortable with applying more paint. You can make some mistakes early, figure them out quickly, and apply that knowledge to a more dedicated piece.

One of the best examples of using mini-paintings to improve with less commitment is by the Paint Coach. Below they do several quick, loose paintings of an apple to gradually figure out how to approach fundamentals like light and shadow.

Give Yourself a Time Limit and Stick to It

Do you work better with a little bit of outside pressure? Set a timer for a short amount of time – between one to fifteen minutes – and stick to it for the duration of your painting.

Setting a timer is a useful way to use an extrinsic motivation style to your advantage. This tool can keep your mind from wandering, creating a window to just focus on the creation – as the saying goes, ‘limitation breeds creativity’.

Robin Sealark’s brilliant compilation video below showcases their series of 10-minute studies based on famous paintings. You’ll learn a lot about how to develop your own style by watching how they block in the most basic shapes and colors, gradually filling it out into a recognizable subject.

Loose Painting is the Key to Expressive and Playful Artwork

If you’ve ever felt your work looks limp or flat, your ticket to lively paintings lies in loose painting. It’s incredible how freeing it is to worry less about fine details and more about getting down the most striking and emotional elements of a subject.

Develop your style even further with fun and affordable online courses. Sign up for Domestika’s gouache sketchbook course to learn how to incorporate loose painting into your day-to-day life.

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